By Laura Pedersen
Fulcrum Publishing Copyright © 2010 Laura Pedersen
All rights reserved.
Black Is the New Black
As a result of being born in 1965 in blue-collar Buffalo, New York, that polestar of the Rust Belt constellation, I seem to have missed the golden age of everything — ancient Greece, Pax Romana, Spanish sonnets, the Hollywood musical, air travel, and even the ozone layer. Instead, I've been part and parcel of the shock-and-outrage age of high gas prices, global warming, death by trans fat, and nationwide bankruptcy.
On September 29, 2008, the day that Buffalo Gal arrived in stores, the Dow Jones average dropped 778.68, the largest point drop in history, placing the country firmly in the grips of the Great Recession. We were also in the midst of another energy crisis, gas having recently hit an all-time peak of $4.11 a gallon, with prices at Western New York pumps the highest in the nation. Buffalo appeared in the top ten of the Forbes list of America's Fastest-Dying Cities. We were five years into an increasingly unpopular and unwinnable war in Iraq and seven years into what appeared to be a costly but futile hunt for terrorists in Afghanistan. Had I jinxed us? Were Afros, sideburns, bell-bottoms, disco, and Toni home perms lurking around the corner?
The Buffalo Bills, who'd made it clear early in the season that they wouldn't be fitted for Super Bowl rings, weren't exactly raising morale in the fall of 2008. As the team lost to the New York Jets, the game was interrupted by breaking news of then president George W. Bush ducking shoes lobbed at him during a press conference in Iraq, and compared to the Buffalo players on the field, Bush looked positively agile. In fact, putting on a Bills game had suddenly become a way to empty out a bar, much the same way my grandfather used to do by singing World War I songs (all verses) in Tommy Martin's speakeasy at 12 1/2 Seneca Street.
President George W. Bush went from lame duck to dead duck as Congress passed a $700 billion package to rescue the nation's banks from the worst financial crisis since the 1930s. Or, as my seventy-seven-year-old father put it, "Mark Twain came in with Halley's Comet and went out with it, so I guess I came in with the Great Depression and will go out with that." The Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, more commonly known as the Bailout, was unpopular with the public, who by and large felt they were being flimflammed once again by the same people who'd brought them the hypercapitalism of no-money-down mortgages with adjustable rates that had been adjusted upward, and credit cards that started with no or low interest rates and promptly skyrocketed until they reached debt collection agencies. The government that gave us Operation Enduring Freedom (which sounded more like a new type of birth control or maxi pad), Operation Spartan Scorpion, and Operation O.K. Corral might have considered tagging their "bailout" package with a catchier name, such as Operation Rip-Roaring Rescue and Reinvestment.
Our very first MBA president (Harvard, no less) oversaw a budget death spiral that went from a $236 billion surplus to a $500 billion deficit. Obviously the thinking here was, "This is money that we owe ourselves so let's just forget about it." Remember your parents constantly scolding, "Money doesn't grow on trees!" Actually, it turns out that it does. Money is a paper product, just like toilet tissue, and so long as there are forests, we can just print some more, regular or two-ply.
With the bailout in place, the Dow continued to plunge below 7,000, more than 50 percent below its high of over 14,000 just a year earlier. Several apocalyptic Ponzi schemes were uncovered, including those operated by Richard Piccoli in Buffalo and Bernie Madoff in Manhattan. Investors quickly turned from stocks, swaps, and bonds to gold, guns, and lifeboats. Easter 2009 brought a nationwide nest-egg hunt, with the Dow having just touched its lowest level in over a decade. Unemployment hit a twenty-five-year high of 8.5 percent and was on the way up. In the Buffalo area, the official rate was 9.6 percent (though considerably higher when calculated under broader definitions including those who have given up looking for work) and was much worse for minorities. Even with its first African American mayor, Byron Brown, on the job since 2006, Buffalo still had one of the highest black male jobless rates in the country. And nearly 30 percent of the city's population was officially classified as poor, making Buffalo the nation's third poorest city, behind Detroit and then Cleveland (whose sassy boosters proudly claim, "We're not Detroit!").
On November 4, 2008, the American people elected Barack Hussein Obama as their new president and in the process left many encouraged, believing the country had finally overcome a sad and sordid past of slavery and segregation. The most common sentiment I heard in downtown Buffalo on election night was, "I wish my [mother, father, brother, grandmother, fill in the blank] had lived to see this!"
In January of 2009 the first black family moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a house built partly by slaves, 148 years after the Civil War began. Countless African Americans hadn't even been able to cast their ballot until President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965, just a few months after civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo was murdered in cold blood by the Ku Klux Klan for giving blacks a ride home in her station wagon after a march in Selma, Alabama. I don't remember that since it was the year I was born, but I clearly recall attending elementary school in the early seventies and having a crayon in my box called "flesh" that was pale peach.
The nationwide financial downturn, compounded by the ongoing machinations of a corrupt and dysfunctional New York State legislature, had taken the high hopes for a Western New York renaissance down along with it. As many of us vividly recalled from the Long-suffering Seventies, Buffalonians continued to experience the aftershocks of that recession for years, while most of the country was well on the road to recovery. But this time there were a few signs that things might turn out differently. And I don't mean the big green signs that say Peace Bridge to Canada Next Right.
I've Got the World on a String Theory
In February of 2009, I was forced to cancel my long-standing subscription to Forbes magazine when it ranked Buffalo eighth on a list of America's Ten Most Miserable Cities (and then repeated the insult in 2010). This was not an action I took lightly, since a family friend's cast-off copies of Forbes had taught me everything I knew about business. At age eighteen I even wrote to publisher Malcolm Forbes and told him that, unable to find opportunity in my hometown in 1983, I was off to seek my fortune on Wall Street based on all that I'd gleaned from the glossy pages of his magazine. The Manhattan-wise brokers and clerks on the dog-eat-dog trading floor ate naive girls like me for breakfast, and I fell for their practical jokes — frantically running from post to post and finally to the chairman's office in search of a bag of upticks, their version of the left-handed monkey wrench. But all that changed the day Malcolm Forbes's reply came addressed to me at the stock exchange. The guys were stunned to see an embossed envelope from the publisher of Forbes and immediately wanted to know how I might be related to or acquainted with the legendary mogul. I tucked the envelope into my pocket as if Malc and I had been best friends forever. Later I discovered it contained only a pleasant form letter, but I was never again sent for the odd-lot stretcher or the keys to the clearinghouse or a bacon double cheeseburger at the kosher deli (which I didn't fall for, since my godparents were Jewish).
Still, after three decades of periodical bliss and mutual respect, it was the end of a beautiful capitalist friendship with Forbes, and I hope the new publisher understands why. Their Misery Measure took into account commute times, corruption, pro sports teams, Superfund sites, income tax, sales tax, unemployment, violent crime, and weather. Why didn't it include art, architecture, and culture, areas in which Buffalo shines, from highbrow to pierced brow, with its many galleries, theaters, architectural treasures, museums, and restaurants? Superstar chef Anthony Bourdain stopped to sample the fare and declared the city not only "beautiful, especially in winter," but "a sentimental favorite," and in 2009 Esquire magazine rated homegrown Ted's Hot Dogs and Mighty Taco two of the best fast-food chains in America. And I'll take the liberty of adding stand-alone Saigon Bangkok, Risa's, Le Metro, Brodo, and Papaya.
Buffalo, which ranked between Detroit and Miami among Forbes's Les Misérables, was taken to task for its surplus snowfall and incredible shrinking population (which peaked at 618,000 in 1960 and is now about 270,000). And why is Buffalo snow a problem? Many cities ranked as the best places to live have plenty of snow. The white stuff seems to be fine in Fargo, no problem in Nashua, boffo in Boise, and perfect in Provo. Paintings by Norman Rockwell and Grandma Moses feature snow. I wasn't aware there was good snow and bad snow, aside from newly fallen snow and yellow snow. Why didn't they take into account that the National Weather Service has never recorded the mercury as being over 100 degrees in this city with such perfect summers? Frostbite, maybe a little. Heatstroke, not a chance.
We're talking about a city with an infrastructure designed to support many more people than its current population, and as a result there are few lines and even fewer traffic jams. You needn't arrive at beaches at the butt crack of dawn to get a good spot, and you don't see smackdowns over picnic tables in the parks. Citizens rest easy knowing there won't be any shortage of hospital beds if the Chicken Wing Flu strikes.
Still, no one I knew felt miserable when Forbes so unexpectedly lashed out at us. However, the following week a local Muslim man decapitated his wife because she was divorcing him (he'd already been divorced twice) — a so-called honor killing by a man who, with his wife, was running a TV station aimed at counteracting negative stereotypes about Muslims. The Unitarian Women's Group (less a sewing circle and more a tactical team against injustice) hadn't been so berserk since 2002, when a Nigerian woman was sentenced to be stoned to death for bearing a child out of wedlock. And before that, when Little Women author Louisa May Alcott was told by a well-known Boston publisher, "Stick to your teaching, Miss Alcott. You can't write."
That same night, a plane crashed in the town of Clarence, fourteen miles northeast of Buffalo, killing fifty people. It was a preventable tragedy, the result of a poorly skilled and inadequately trained pilot. Suddenly everyone felt miserable. In an area with over a million people, it's hard to imagine all the threads connecting our lives into one big tapestry, but they're there. Most people had some link to the crash that suddenly made daily existence more tenuous. Mine was that I'd gone to church with the couple to whose home a woman and her daughter fled after their house had been hit by the falling plane, which killed the husband.
Thus, the narrative of my book shifted slightly. It was not a time for new beginnings so much as for belt-tightening and recuperation, and who better at budgeting and refurbishing a torn psyche than Buffalonians? In the classic economic model of scarcity and abundance, Buffalonians have excelled at coupon clipping and dollar stretching over the past half century. Or, as the burglars like to say, we take things as we find them, even Canadian castoffs in mall parking lots, thereby adding a whole new dimension to the phrase duty-free shopping. With a history of economic adversity and our legacy as one of the country's most blizzard-beaten areas, when it comes time to hunker down and pray for daylight while remaining cheerful and practical, the nation turns its desperate gaze to us. We've internalized the lines from Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot: "We wait till we can get up. Then we go on. On!" Or possibly the words of my favorite camp counselor: "Cry all you want. You'll have to pee less."
Western New Yorkers can find the upside to a downward spiral. Surely it's no accident that composer Harold Arlen (1905–1986) was born and raised in Buffalo. In 1929, the year of the stock market crash, he wrote the music for his first best-selling song, "Get Happy." During the depths of the Great Depression, he composed "I've Got the World on a String" (Life's a wonderful thing!) and the classic ballad "Over the Rainbow," and following World War II, "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive" and "Come Rain or Come Shine" (Days may be cloudy or sunny, we're in or we're out of the money, but I'll love you always, I'm with you rain or shine).
We're a stoic people and the champions of waiting it out, whether it's for the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup, or spring. Pray for sun, prepare for rain. If Buffalo had been around in biblical times, we'd have continued about our business through plague and pestilence. Frogs — wear boots. Hail — how about ice cream? Grasshoppers — perfect for a frozen blended afternoon cocktail. Indeed, Hang in There cat posters and Keep on Truckin' mud flaps were made for us.
Just between you and me, archaeologists and bisonologists are quite certain that no buffalo ever roamed Western New York. But there were and still are thousands of industrious beavers building homes and having families. Indeed, the winged beaver might make a better mascot for the area since Buffalonians just keep toiling away until they eventually rise up.
Buffalo is nicknamed the Queen City because it's the second largest city in the state, after New York, or else because at one time it was the second largest city on the Great Lakes, after Chicago. However, any chess player will tell you that it's better to be the queen. The king just stands there while the queen gets all the good moves.
The United States of Iroquois
Prior to middle school, when most major life decisions were made by employing the Magic 8 Ball, the similarly exacting eeny, meenie, miny, mo was used to determine who would go first on a double-dog dare and that sort of thing. However, it was absolutely necessary when dividing up for a game of cowboys and Indians since it was much cooler to be an Indian — not just because of the face paint and war whoops, but because it was only a game, and therefore you could fight hard without ending up conquered when dinner was ready and playtime was over. I guess nowadays kids play cowpersons and indigenous Americans. Or, more likely, computer war games.
In elementary school, we had to write an illustrated report on the Seneca Indian longhouse. The Seneca preferred this big house over groupings of smaller tepees, a wise choice in a Western New York winter and one that has withstood the test of time, as I do not recall ever going to anyone's tepee to play after school. A dozen or so people residing in one dwelling would probably appear crowded to schoolchildren in other parts of the country, but in heavily Catholic Buffalo this was a very common arrangement.
My hometown of Amherst, New York, a few miles northeast of Buffalo, is unusual in that it's named after British Army officer Jeffery Amherst. Many of the surrounding towns have Indian words for names — Cheektowaga, Lackawanna, Tonawanda, West Seneca, Gowanda, and Chautauqua. We also have Scajaquada Creek and the Scajaquada Expressway, which are not impossible to pronounce so long as you don't live near the Sagtikos State Parkway on Long Island, as my grandfather did. If you add in the name of Native American guide and interpreter Sacajawea, then you must pick two to say, since no person can pronounce Scajaquada, Sagtikos, and Sacajawea.
In addition to tax-free gas and cigarettes, we have the Indians to thank for squash, peanuts, maple sugar, syrup, Thanksgiving, the toboggan, lacrosse, the expression to bury the hatchet, and succotash — a stew made of corn, lima beans, and tomatoes. An Indian named Straight Back was invited to dinner by a white pioneer and the meal was served in courses. So when Straight Back invited the pioneer to his place, he also served dinner in courses — succotash, succotash, and then succotash. Perhaps that's why the cartoon character Sylvester the Cat used to say, "Suffering succotash."
As a matter of interest, the Iroquois did not own and operate the local Iroquois Brewery. Started as the Jacob Roos Brewery in 1830, Iroquois went on to become the largest brewery in Buffalo and collapsed under financial pressure in 1971. There was no bailout.
Four-fifths of New York State, from the Saint Lawrence River and Adirondack Mountains to Lake Erie and Ohio, had been settled by the original five nations of the Iroquois League (Cayuga, Oneida, Mohawk, Seneca, and Onondaga) at least five hundred years before European settlers started arriving in the sixteenth century. The area around Lake Erie, which shares its latitude with Barcelona and Rome, was particularly popular because of the fertile farmland and good fishing. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Buffalo Unbound by Laura Pedersen. Copyright © 2010 Laura Pedersen. Excerpted by permission of Fulcrum Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.